Impressions of “The Revenant”

~This review of The Revenant contains spoilers about the movie, and also discusses the violence in the movie, which takes the form of mutilation of dead animals, violence against people, and sexual assault.~

In the opening scene of The Revenant, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white fur trapper, speaks to Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his son with his late Native American wife (Grace Dove), in the traditional Pawnee language. The subtitles explain that he is reassuring his son about the difficulties they have already encountered in their trek through the forest in the winter, and that they will soon be over. He tells him “It’s okay, son, I know you want it to be over. I’m right here. I’ll be right here. But don’t give up. Do you hear me? While you can still hold one breath, keep fighting.” These words echo throughout the film.

I was particularly attuned to these opening lines after reading Christopher Orr’s review of the movie in The Atlantic, in which he characterizes them as a message to the audience as well as to Hawk. Instead, I see these lines as a very fitting start to the wintery, savage world of the movie, which is unapologetically violence and immersive, and in which the morality of the trappers and of the Native Americans is different from that with which we are familiar. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu provides an unflinching look into the realities of Glass’ journey across the forest and is uncompromising in the face of the brutal violence that Glass must endure and inflict. It is often in equal parts difficult to watch and difficult to turn away from, and the violence comes suddenly and unexpectedly, without allowing the tension in the audience to dissipate.

The governing force in the movie, and in Glass’ worldview, is also established in the first lines of the movie, and it is the love between Hawk, Glass, and his late wife. Hawk plays a crucial role in nursing his father back to health, and it is Glass’ determination to avenge his son’s death that drives the plot. Glass’ late wife appears to him several times throughout the film to encourage him and to keep him alive. In a world marked by ruthless violence and gruesome injuries, this tenderness between father and son provides the balance that the film needs to be compelling, and to avoid becoming merely a catalog of injuries and bloodshed.

The score, designed and composed by Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, and Ryûichi Sakamoto, signals changes in mood and tone that the visual plot itself may not convey fully. The music is noticeably varied, and often much lighter and cheerier than the images on screen would suggest. During one pivotal scene, a band of Native Americans has just chased Glass and his horse off a cliff: the horse falls to its death, but a tree breaks Glass’ fall, and he hits the ground injured but alive. Desperate for shelter in the freezing cold, Glass guts his dead horse and crawls into its hollow corpse for warmth, where he spends the night.

The next morning, the horse’s skin has frozen over, and the camera focuses on Glass’ hands as he reaches through the slit in the corpse’s stomach and tears his way out of the horse. Suddenly, “Out of Horse,” the song accompanying this scene, begins to play, and it is airy and hopeful. Together with the images of the crisp white snow, the icy pine trees, and the naked Glass emerging from the slit in the horse’s stomach, it becomes a scene of reincarnation. Literally, it appears as if Glass is being physically reborn, with the vaginal imagery and with his nakedness. In the next scene, as the music changes to “Looking for Glass,” the French traveler alerts Captain Henry and the others that Glass is alive, and they begin searching for him. The scene of rebirth marks the moment in which Glass’ luck changes, and in which the other trappers begin to treat Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) as a criminal, and the score signals this change before the visual plot does.

As a modern feminist, I subject nearly all media I encounter to a feminist analysis, even when it isn’t entirely applicable, as in this film. It doesn’t come even close to passing the Bechdel Test, mainly because there isn’t a single live female character with more than one line at all, but that isn’t the point of the movie. The reality is that it takes place in the world of fur trappers in the early nineteenth century, and historically there weren’t any women involved actively in the hunting and hiking (as far as I know).

Besides Glass’ late wife, who is never named but who plays a major role in encouraging both Glass and Hawk through their memories of her, the only significant female character is Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). She is the daughter of a Native American leader, and she is kidnapped and raped repeatedly by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde), a French trapper. In the context of this particularly violent movie, the depiction of her rape is surprisingly brief and minimally graphic, although of course distressing nonetheless, as all descriptions or depictions of rape must necessarily be.

Glass sneaks into the French camp as Toussaint is raping Powaqa and injures her attacker, before securing one horse for himself to escape on and another one for her. They part ways and she finds her father, who has been frantically searching for her since she was kidnapped. To its credit, the film avoids the trope of the man saving the female rape victim and delivering her back to her father. Instead, Glass slashes Toussaint first and then hands the knife to Powaqa, who threatens, in her only line, to “cut off [Toussaint’s] balls.” The vitriol in this scene is bracing: Powaqa isn’t a damsel in distress who needs a man to rescue her, she just needs the distraction Glass provides so that she can escape the Toussaint and travel through the woods back to her family herself. She threatens violence as vehemently and as explicitly as any of the men do, as she warns Toussaint that she will castrate him if he moves or tries to retaliate. Unlike many other female characters in similar movies populated almost entirely by men, she refreshingly uses her only line to threaten her captor, rather than to thank Glass for his role in her escape.

Another trope that the film skillfully avoids is that which I call the “Pocahontas trope,” for lack of a better term. In this trope, a daughter watches her father as he is about to kill a man, and she runs in between them, shielding the victim with her body, telling her father all about how much she loves the man she is protecting, or how he has saved her previously, or some other reason for which his life should be spared, and pleading her father not to kill the man. (The most famous example of this relationship occurs in Disney’s Pocahontas, and it is only a coincidence that both Pocahontas and Powaqa are women of Native American descent: as far as I can tell this trope in literature and film isn’t ethnically-specific, but it is certainly heavily gendered.)

At the very end of the film, after the band of Native Americans kill Fitzgerald and they ride across the river towards Glass, it seems as though he may be their next victim. We quickly notice, however, that the first man riding across is Powaqa’s father, closely followed by Powaqa herself. I worried that her father would try to kill Glass, and that Powaqa would jump from her horse to protect the latter, thus surrendering to this “Pocahontas trope” that exists through many American and European stories. Instead, Powaqa and her father ride by and look down at Glass with gravitas and authority, sparing his life silently and powerfully. Here, father and daughter are on equal footing, with the camera angle pointing up from Glass’ perspective, and both Powaqa and her father riding by on horses, looking down with identically inscrutable expressions.

In many respects, I agree with Christopher Orr’s review of the movie, but I disagree with his critique of the movie as lacking nuance in the morality of its characters:

The Revenant is not without its flaws. Though there are intimations of moral complexity and ambiguity early on, they are abandoned in favor of disappointing dichotomies: Characters are gradually sorted into the uniformly kind, tolerant, and trustworthy on one side; and the lying, venal, and bigoted on the other.”

There is much moral ambiguity in the characters throughout the film, and besides Hawk, who dies within the first forty minutes, and arguably Glass, there is no entirely good or entirely evil character. Presumably, Fitzgerald is one of Orr’s “lying, venal, and bigoted characters,” but in fact I find him to be complex, with some compassion and even kindness in his evildoing. Towards the beginning of the movie, he is desperate to carry the fur pelts back to the trappers’ fort in order to make a profit, and the Captain reminds him that in doing so he could well lose his life. His response is chilling and revelatory about him as a character: “I have no life, I have only a living.” He sees gaining money as synonymous with surviving, and thus he is willing to go to extremes to ensure that he profits. If he is murderous, at least he doesn’t value his own life either.

Even as he is desperate to return to the fort, however, Fitzgerald does not become a two-dimensionally evil character. He wants to kill the heavily-injured Glass so that he can continue his trek to the fort, and he spends some time trying to convince Glass to let him smother him to death. Glass refuses, and ultimately Fitzgerald tries to smother him anyways, without his consent. However, it is worth noting that Fitzgerald first tries to secure Glass’ agreement, even though Glass is in such a weakened state that he could not fight back anyways. Hawk catches Fitzgerald murdering Glass, and before killing Hawk, Fitzgerald, to his credit, tries to reason with him and convince him that he is right to kill Glass. He also brings the young Bridger (Will Poulter) along with him when he leaves Glass, even though he could easily have left Bridger behind or killed him as well, and claimed back at the fort that they had been attacked by another band of Native Americans and that he had been the only survivor.

Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is another character that doesn’t fit neatly into Orr’s dichotomy. Throughout the film he is a largely moral man, unable to stomach mercy-killing Glass, encouraging members of the company to stay with Glass until he dies to provide him with an honorable burial, and rewarding Bridger for his supposed role in preparing Glass’ burial. He promises to help Glass find Fitzgerald and bring him back to the fort to be tried for murder, and dies trying. However, as soon as he finds out that Glass is still alive, he displays a frightening streak of violence and cruelty. He attacks a man to learn where Fitzgerald has gone, and he knocks Bridger to the ground, shoving the barrel of a gun in his face and yelling at him to “say the Lord’s Prayer,” after which presumably Henry would shoot him. The boy is so terrified that he can barely speak and falters after the first line of the prayer; Henry does not relent until another man takes his gun and forces him to walk away. I would describe Fitzgerald and Henry as mainly good and mainly bad characters respectively, but I don’t think that they fall into simple dichotomies, or that their goodness or badness is not complex.

This film was the first I’ve seen directed by Iñárritu, and I am anxious to see others he has made. It is a visually beautiful movie, taking place in a stunning snowy landscape, with a background that stands in sharp contrast to the violence and brutality of the characters. The blood splattered on the snow in the final scene is reminiscent of the iconic blood stains on the snow in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, after the wood chipper scene. At just over two and a half hours, the movie requires a lot of stamina from the audience, and I agree with Orr in his assessment that the final fight follows so much bloodshed that it teeters dangerously close to comedy. The ambiguous ending of the movie is, in my opinion, an over-done concept, but I also don’t have a suggestion for a better ending.

I loved this movie even though the lady sitting next to me yelled every time there was any bloodshed, and even though she took a phone call during the movie, which is a testament to how compelling and immersive the film is.

 

Why Midnight Radio?

I’ve gotten many questions about the name of my blog, “Dispatches from the Midnight Radio,” so instead of making my first post about a play I saw recently (it’s coming!!), I’ll take a moment first to explain the name.

“The Midnight Radio” is a reference to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I was able to see five times during its run on Broadway: three times with Andrew Rannells, once with John Cameron Mitchell, and once with Taye Diggs, on the last performance of its run.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the play, it’s a phenomenal musical about Hedwig, a German washed-up rock star who underwent a sex change surgery as a young man to escape Soviet-era Germany, but whose life was derailed when the doctor made a mistake and left her with the eponymous “angry inch.” Hedwig’s partner, Yitzhak, is a famous Soviet drag queen whom Hedwig agrees to marry for American citizenship, so long as Yitzhak agrees never again to wear a wig or dress in drag. This rule is consistent with how the man who convinced Hedwig to undergo her sex change operation told her that “to walk away, you’ve got to leave something behind,” an opinion which Hedwig’s mother seconded. She exacts this same revenge on Yitzhak, preluding her from manifesting her gender identity, just as Hedwig feels that her own gender has been stripped from her violently.

The name of my blog ties together two of my favorite scenes from the musical, and maybe even in theatre in general. The performance of “Midnight Radio” comes at the very end of the show, and in this scene Hedwig is stripped completely naked except for black spandex shorts, and is facing the audience as vulnerable as we have seen her all night, with her wig off and her makeup smudged across her face. During this song, she places her own wig on Yitzhak’s head, granting Yitzhak permission to dress in drag and to reclaim her identity once more.

It’s during this moment that Hedwig realizes that she has been recreating the violence on Yitzhak that has been perpetrated on her, and she finds that to overcome her own pain, she doesn’t have to pass it on to somebody else. Hedwig derives strength from all the strong women who came before her and on whom she has modeled herself: “Here’s to Patti/ And Tina/ And Yoko/ Aretha/ And Nona/ And Nico/ And me,” and then finally, triumphantly, counts herself among them. She urges the audience to “hold on to each other” and take solace in each other’s company.

The most compelling part of the song, though, is when she makes a reference to the midnight radio, singing “And you’re shining/ Like the brightest star/ A transmission/ On the midnight radio.” Earlier in the performance she tells of how she would listen to American radio late at night as a child in East Berlin, finding refuge from her daily life in the music she would hear on that “midnight radio.” She sang along (until her mom threw a tomato at her) and she would imagine herself as one of the stars she heard on that radio.

These programs she heard on the midnight radio let her craft a future for herself that, although filled with heartbreak, also provided her an avenue to escape from the stifling East Berlin of her youth and inspired her to hope for a better future, and isn’t that the effect that art has had on millions of people throughout history? In all its different forms, it has uplifted young people, showing them that there is an alternative to a future that often seems inevitable. It’s a message that feels intensely personal as soon as it reaches any individual by reassuring them that they are not alone in wanting a different future for themselves, and that they are certainly not selfish for choosing a different life than the one that has been laid out for them.

Good art has so often provide an avenue of expression and commiseration for people who feel isolated in their communities, and, although as an English major at a liberal arts university in New York City I certainly don’t feel isolated in my love for various forms of art, the sense of community and like-mindedness that I feel when I attend a performance or similar artistic event—or even just participate in compelling class discussion—is incomparable. I hope to use this blog to expound on these experiences of communion with strangers through art, whether it’s through reading the works of a long-dead writer, or seeing a performance of a play, or viewing an exhibit of an artist’s work at a museum, and to amplify those moments which for many come as just whispers on a midnight radio.

NB: Throughout my writing about Hedwig, the pronoun that I use to describe her changes. Many people view her as a transgender character, and as such, of course, the pronoun which matches her gender should always be used. However, I view the character differently, since before the sex change operation Hedwig never expressed any interest in becoming a woman, and in fact reluctantly agreed to undergo the surgery merely to escape from East Berlin as a man’s wife. Since her anatomy should not be assumed to correlate with her gender, I think that Hedwig could be regarded as a man who underwent surgery for reasons other than being transgender, and thus who is still a man, regardless of his physicality. However, after this surgery Hedwig embraces her role as a woman, somewhat reluctantly at times, but very clearly aligns herself with a sort of feminine prototype, and refers to herself as “she.” Had this play been written in 2015, rather than in the 90s, perhaps the pronoun used to describe Hedwig would not have had to be either “he” or “she” and instead it could have been a pronoun of her own choosing, or perhaps the writer would ultimately still have chosen “she.” I refer to Hedwig with “she/her” pronouns throughout because that is the convention, both within the play and within the critical community about Hedwig, but I think that the pronoun is potentially reductive in the face of her experiences, and I think it important to note that an involuntary change in anatomy should never be automatically assumed to cause a change in gender.